Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 31 January 2017: Donald Trump’s first week as US president marked by series of controversial executive orders, Islamic State’s Southeast Asia emir badly wounded in airstrike, Syrian government forces retake areas in Wadi Barada valley

The weekly briefing, 31 January 2017: Donald Trump’s first week as US president marked by series of controversial executive orders, Islamic State’s Southeast Asia emir badly wounded in airstrike, Syrian government forces retake areas in Wadi Barada valley

Briefing photo


Africa: African heads of state elect new chair of African Union Commission; The Gambia’s new president returns to the country from neighbouring Senegal.

Americas: Donald Trump’s first week as US president marked by series of controversial executive orders; Colombian government announces new plan with support of FARC to eradicate large areas of coca leaf crops.

Asia-Pacific: Islamic State’s Southeast Asia emir and commander of Abu Sayyaf badly wounded in airstrike by Philippine military; unnamed Chinese defence official claims war with United States during Donald Trump’s term as president is a reality.

Europe and Central Asia: Benoit Hamon wins Socialist Party candidacy for French presidential elections in April; Latest round of Syrian peace talks conducted in Kazakhstan under leadership of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Middle East: US special forces raid in Yemen kills 14 al-Qaeda militants and results in death of US soldier; Syrian government forces retake areas in Wadi Barada valley, which is home to Damascus’s main water source.



African heads of state gathered in Addis Ababa on 30 January to elect a new chairperson of the African Union Commission (the AU secretariat or executive branch). The Chadian foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was elected with 39 votes after seven rounds of voting. There were five candidates vying for the job: Amina Mohamed from Kenya, Abdoulaye Bathily from Senegal, Faki Mahamat from Chad, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi from Botswana and Mba Mokuy from Equatorial Guinea. In order to win, Faki Mahamat had to receive at least a two-thirds majority (36 votes). The position was meant to be filled in July 2016, but the election was postponed after candidates failed to secure the necessary backing. The leaders also decided to re-admit Morocco, which left the African Union in 1984 in a dispute over the independence of Western Sahara and was the only country on the continent that was not a member of the organisation.


The Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned to the country from neighbouring Senegal on 26 January after the former president, Yahya Jammeh, finally stepped down on 21 January. Barrow had been forced into exile after Jammeh contested the December election result and refused to cede the presidency. Jammeh eventually conceded defeat on 20 January after talks with regional leaders and the threat of a military intervention by ECOWAS. Barrow’s return marks the Gambia’s first democratic transfer of power. The new president faces significant challenges, including reforming the Gambia’s secret police, which is accused of torture and forced disappearances during Jammeh’s rule, and maintaining stability in order to protect the country’s vital tourist industry.


United States

Donald Trump’s first week as US president was marked by a series of controversial executive orders. This includes an order signed on 27 January that prevents refugees from entering the United States for 120 days. The order also bars immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, including those with valid green cards or visas. So far, 16 state attorney generals have deemed the order unconstitutional; judges in at least five states have temporarily blocked federal authorities from enforcing it; and the then acting attorney general instructed the justice department not to defend the order. By issuing executive orders, Trump is likely attempting to solidify his political base through the illusion of quickly delivering on populist campaign promises. However, it is likely that some of these decrees will face legal and constitutional challenges. The media focus on these executive orders means that other dangerous moves by Trump have received less attention. This includes the unprecedented sidelining of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the National Security Council’s Principals Committee while at the same time giving his chief strategist and controversial far-right figure Steve Bannon a seat at the committee’s meetings. Further turbulence and controversy can be expected over the coming weeks and months as Trump’s political lurches are frustrated by the judicial and legislative branches of government and civil society.

Donald Trump will continue to be frustrated by the judicial and legislative branches of the US governmentClick To Tweet


The Colombian government has announced a new plan with the support of FARC to eradicate large areas of coca leaf crops. Under the joint plan that was part of Colombia’s peace deal ratified in December 2016, coca farmers will receive monthly government-issued payments of about £280 if they choose to destroy their crops. They will also receive financial incentives to substitute coca for other crops, such as cacao or fruit trees. The move is likely to prove a more sustainable alternative to the fight against the cocaine trade than the previously used method of aerial fumigation of illegal coca crops. Success will depend on convincing an estimated 64,000 farmer families that depend on the coca trade to subscribe to the plan. Although the FARC rebel group supports the measures, it is possible that the power vacuum generated by its demobilisation will encourage other armed groups to attempt to take over control of the lucrative illegal trade.



On 25 January, the commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, Isnilon Hapilon, was badly wounded in an airstrike by the Philippine military on the town of Butig on Mindanao. According to Filipino defence sources, 15 militants were killed in the airstrike and their commander requires urgent medical treatment, including a blood transfusion. There is a US$5 million bounty on Hapilon’s head for his part in the capture of 20 people, including three Americans, in May 2001, which led to the death of two people. Hapilon has since pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and was endorsed as the group’s emir of Southeast Asia in 2016. If he dies from his wounds, his loss will be a considerable blow to both Islamic State and Abu Sayyaf, but he will likely be quickly replaced, probably by Radullan Sahiron – one of Abu Sayyaf’s senior leaders. However, should he seek treatment, he will be at risk of capture, which presents an interesting intelligence opportunity.


In an article published on the People’s Liberation Army website on 27 January, an unnamed official from China’s defence mobilisation department has said that a war with the United States during Donald Trump’s term as president was not simply a slogan, but a reality. As a consequence, the official suggested that China build up its military deployments in the South China Sea and called for a new missile defence system on the east of the country. Tensions between China and the United States have increased since Trump was elected in November, and his new administration has criticised China’s supposed underhanded economic tactics and ignored the United States’ longstanding ‘One China’ policy by opening diplomatic communications with Taiwan. Trump has also suggested that the US Navy could blockade Chinese ports in the South China Sea, which would potentially be an act of war. There are unconfirmed reports that China is moving intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) within firing range of the United States. There are likely to be further diplomatic clashes and a deteriorating relationship between the United States and China, as Trump pursues his foreign policy agenda and China continues to flex its economic and military muscles; however, it is very unlikely that the economically-motivated China will risk military confrontation with the United States.

Unnamed Chinese defence official claims war with United States 'a reality' under Donald TrumpClick To Tweet

Europe and Central Asia


Benoit Hamon has won the Socialist Party candidacy for the French presidential elections in April. He defeated the former prime minister Manuel Valls, who resigned to run in the primaries a few days after the incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, announced in December 2016 that he would not run for re-election. Hamon used his victory speech to attempt to bring unity to the embittered Socialist Party as it approaches an election that it is expected to lose very badly. He also called for unity with the Green Party and independents in a bid to form a coalition that can compete with the divided right-wing vote. Hamon is staunchly left wing, and his policy proposals include a universal basic income for all French nationals and legalising cannabis. The forthcoming presidential election was previously thought to a closed contest between the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, and the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen; however, the contest has opened up amid allegations that Fillon paid his wife €500,000 of public funds over eight years to be a parliamentary assistant – a job it is claimed she never carried out. Fillon denies the accusations, but has said he will withdraw from the election if there is a full investigationhich could lead to a far-right/far-left contest.


Under the leadership of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the latest round of the Syrian peace talks was conducted in Kazakhstan’s capital city, Astana, on 23-24 January. The talks included Syrian opposition officials, who signalled that they primarily focused on securing and monitoring a long-term ceasefire, and preferred not to discuss the future of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. However, it is highly unlikely that the opposition will agree to any plan in which the controversial president stays in power. The Astana talks signalled that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara have become the main external players in Syria’s future, with Western diplomats reportedly unable to influence the negotiations in Kazakhstan. This reflects the wider short- to medium-term geopolitical shift in the Middle East in which Turkey and Iran are cementing their positions as regional powers and Russia is increasing its sway as US influence wanes.

Middle East


Syrian government forces announced the recapture of areas in the Wadi Barada valley on 29 January. The area is home to Damascus’s main water source, which was allegedly contaminated with diesel as a result of either action by the rebels or from regime bombing. The Damascus Water Authority was forced to cut off the supply to the capital on 23 December 2016, leaving four million residents without regular access to clean water. A ceasefire was negotiated on 30 December to allow infrastructure to be repaired and the water supply restored, but clashes between government and rebel forces continued in the area. Opposition fighters that have now left the area are understood to be going to Idlib in northern Syria as part of the agreement. The retaking of areas in the Wadi Barada valley is the latest government advance against the armed opposition since the retaking of Aleppo in December 2016.


A US special operations forces (SOF) raid took place on an al-Qaeda stronghold in al-Baida province in Yemen on 29 January. The US military said that 14 al-Qaeda members were killed in the raid, while local media suggests that a number of women and children were also killed. Medics in the area have put the death toll at around 30 people. One American SOF operator also died in the raid. Although the United States carries out periodic drone attacks in Yemen, it rarely conducts operations on the ground. The raid is the first that the new US president, Donald Trump, has signed off on, though it had been planned under his predecessor, Barak Obama. It is possible that the attack will lead to a backlash against the United States.

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